After operations with cardiopulmonary bypass, patients often show early symptoms of the systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). Potential mediators of SIRS include the platelet-activating factor (PAF), which has been linked to septic shock and multiple organ dysfunction. We studied the effect of cardiac surgery on PAF acetylhydrolase, the PAF-degrading plasma enzyme, as well as the relationship between the enzyme and the postoperative state of the patients. PAF acetylhydrolase activity decreased by 38+/-8% after instituting cardiopulmonary bypass because of plasma dilution and returned to near-preoperative levels within 6 h postsurgery. After that, enzyme levels decreased again, resulting in a 24+/-12% reduction until at least 3 days postsurgery. Patients in poor postoperative condition (Acute Physiology Score >9) had a lower preoperative PAF acetylhydrolase activity than did normal patients (12+/-4 vs. 17+/-4 nmol min(-1) mL(-1); p < .05). Likewise, patients who developed postoperative SIRS had a lower preoperative PAF acetylhydrolase activity than did patients without SIRS (12+/-3 vs. 17+/-4 nmol min(-1) mL(-1); p < .05). The data suggest that PAF acetylhydrolase deficiency is among the factors associated with postoperative distress after cardiac surgery.